‘It Never Goes Away’

St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen reflects on loss and learnings


The mayor of St. John’s admits his views on search and rescue are impacted by his own personal experience. March 12 will mark the tenth anniversary of the crash of Cougar Flight 491, a tragedy that impacted not only the province, but his own family on a very personal level.

Immense tragedy & loss

Breen’s brother Peter was one of the 17 victims of the crash of which there was a lone survivor.

“I think in this province, after going through the Ocean Ranger and the many fishery disasters over the years and shipping incidents, we all knew the dangers of working offshore, whatever industry it be in. But we couldn’t be prepared for the immense tragedy and loss that we all felt that day,” Breen shared on March 8, 2017, presenting at a Senate Committee meeting looking into search and rescue in Canada and the challenges faced.

With the personal loss always in his thoughts, Breen has become somewhat of a safety advocate when it comes to the oil industry.

“Looking back, all the recommendations have been implemented I believe, with the exception of 24/7 response time which came out of the Ocean Ranger inquiry and is still not implemented,” he begins. He worries sometimes that, with the passage of time, the focus may shift.  

“The concern continues to be that these tragic events happen and then there’s a heightened awareness of safety offshore and then we get back into this malaise and the public focus, the attention drifts, and that tends to mean we could be slipping back in terms of awareness of the dangers of working in the offshore industries,” he says passionately.

10th anniversary 

This is particularly important for the industry in this province, he continues, as ocean industries account for 53 per cent of the total Canadian ocean industry economy.  Safety, therefore, impacts us all.

“March 12 is 10 years, and while everybody is doing as well as they can, it never goes away. It always stays with you.”

Sometimes it feels like this tragedy happened more recently, at other times it feels a lifetime ago, but the reminders are never far away.

“It’s rare that a week goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me and say; really sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. It’s amazing how many people come up to me and say, I knew your brother. I worked with him in such-and-such a place.” 

With so many employed in the industry, it’s a tight knit community, he says. As for the day he lost his brother? That’s still very raw.

“The memory of that day is very much alive and well, not only with the families affected but certainly in the community in general.”

A Call-to-Action

Breen’s brother Pete worked with East Coast Catering and was a “lovely man.” “He was the oldest one aboard the helicopter and he was just a really nice, obliging guy. He never had a bad word to say about anyone, got along with everyone, was very quiet, very unassuming, good sense of humour and had a tremendously wide network of friends. Once people met him they liked him and he left his mark.” 

While there’s grief, Breen also felt a call-to-action. “I have to believe when you are faced with a very difficult situation and a loss like that, you have to try to bring something positive from it. People would want to know that, his friends and coworkers working off shore and the families, they want to know that things are safer.”

Breen fears to forget is to fall back.  “I’ve focused on offshore safety because I  don’t want us to go back to a false sense of comfort on this. It’s an important industry to the province and it’s an important employer and it’s a dangerous industry to live and work in.”

With the grim anniversary of both the Ocean Ranger and Cougar 491 on the horizon, Breen reflects on his own way of coping and moving forward.

“We will mark the anniversary as a family, just as we did 10 years ago. We came together and dealt with that tragedy and we continue to do that.” 

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